LINCOLN — To address staffing issues, hiring bonuses will be offered at Nebraska’s two largest prisons and incentives based on years of service will be paid to workers in Tecumseh, the state’s prison director announced Monday.

Scott Frakes, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, said as of Monday all permanent staff at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution will receive merit-based incentives determined on their years of service.

Also, he said, the first 100 new hires at Tecumseh and the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln will receive a $2,500 recruitment bonus paid out quarterly over the course of a year.

"These initiatives represent an innovative approach to compensation that invests in our people at our facilities with the greatest needs,” Frakes said.

He said they will use available funds "to address our agency's recruitment and retention challenges."

Overtime, especially mandatory overtime, has been a serious challenge facing prison staff, Frakes said, calling it a "significant issue" for Tecumseh and the State Penitentiary.

Frakes said recruiting new staff at both of the prisons will reduce the need for mandatory overtime.

He said every vacancy the agency fills and doesn’t have to staff with overtime saves $13,000 per year. Over the course of a year, staffing essential posts with overtime at Tecumseh costs nearly $1 million more than if the vacant positions were filled with full-time employees.

Frakes said they'll also look to reduce costs and reallocate funds to pay for these new initiatives.

He said Nebraska is one of many states nationally facing challenges in staffing prisons.

Tecumseh has struggled with recruitment and retention since it opened, Frakes said. But this summer, the number of vacant positions has made it challenging to operate the facility "the way I want to be able to operate it," he said.

At the same time, he said, there has been a noticeable uptick in turnover at the State Penitentiary.

"We saw two issues that we needed to speak to and address as quickly as possible," Frakes said.

He said they will be able to assess within the first three months if the turnover and vacancy rates are improving. He'd like to reach a 10 percent vacancy rate for protective-custody staff.

Frakes said maintaining normal operations there is challenging with staff vacancies near 30 percent, driven by the high rate of turnover.

Prison staff at other facilities, like the Lincoln Correctional Center, which is fully staffed, could apply for the merit-based incentive if they transfer to Tecumseh. It also rewards a core group of good employees already there, he said.

Staff with at least one year of employment and up to 10 years or more with satisfactory performance would get a 2.5 to 10 percent incentive.

"To me, this is really exciting. This is a chance to let Tecumseh be everything everyone wanted it to be when it was built," he said.

Frakes acknowledged that the merit incentive could create frustration with staff at other facilities, but they've got to prioritize.

"We've got to address our greatest need," he said.

Right now, they've been asking staff at the Work Ethic Camp in McCook to work weekends in Lincoln and staff in Omaha to help out at Tecumseh.

"It's also ultimately beneficial to all employees," Frakes said, adding it's a chance to show how compensation approaches can be effective in addressing recruitment and retention.

"We're going to take full advantage of that," he said.

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